A former Pittsburgh-area country club that closed six years ago is reverting back to nature, and a local nonprofit wants to protect the space for the community to enjoy.
Renee Dolney and her dog Paris trotted along the asphalt path at the 148-acre former Churchill Valley Country Club on a warm summer afternoon. Dolney is from Blackridge, within walking distance of the property, which straddles Churchill and Penn Hills. She said she fell in love with the property when she discovered it a year ago.
“It's profoundly changed my relationship to nature,” she said. “I used to think nature was something that was like I have to get on the turnpike and go to a state park, and it's not it can be right here in your backyard.”
Golfers don’t tee off on the green at the former country club anymore. Instead, locals are beginning to explore the property.
“One of the things I love about it is, I met so many of my neighbors that I wouldn't have seen," Dolney said. "It really has built a sense of community."
Residents aren’t the only ones who have rediscovered the space. The Allegheny Land Trust now has its eye on the site.
The country club was opened in 1931. It closed in 2013, and the property was recently appraised at more than $3 million.
The land conservation nonprofit is under contract to purchase the grounds for permanent protection as a community green space. It needs to secure $3 million by March 2020. The land trust currently has $2 million in grant requests with state agencies, and launched a campaign for community members to raise $100,000 by the end of this year.
About 95,000 people live within a 3-mile radius of the property, located off of Beulah Road. The land trust intends to manage the former golf course as an area for recreation such as hiking, running and bird watching.
Tom Dougherty, vice president of development and external affairs at the land trust, says one of the things that makes the site special is that is has 3 miles of paved trails -- left over from when it was a golf course.
“When you have a paved trail like this, all the sudden this type of green space, and this type of nature becomes accessible to older people who aren't as agile on rough terrain,” Dougherty said.
He says it's also convenient for families with strollers, people with disabilities, and those looking for a workout.
Dougherty said the land trust will make small changes to the green space - including improvements to the parking area, signage and cleanup, but it would look similar to what it is today. The land trust also wants to preserve the woodlands and meadows that cover the property.
“That mixture of habitat is very important for not only for people to enjoy and experience, but for wildlife,” he said.
That greenspace could also help sequester rainfall – preventing landslides and erosion; Dougherty said. Heavy rains have plagued Allegheny County in recent years. In fact, 2018 was the wettest year on record for the county.
“That's really important around here, as our rainfall continues to increase,” Dougherty said. “The way we treat our green space, or remaining green space, in Allegheny County has a lot to influence on whether we mitigate those problems going forward or whether we exacerbate those problems.”
But the land trust is still trying to make the protection of the site a reality.
The community campaign, which seeks $100,000, is part of a funding plan that includes support from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, foundations, corporate partners and civic organizations.
“Not only does that community campaign help us close the funding gap, but maybe equally important is it demonstrates local support,” Dougherty said.
The trust estimates that Churchill currently has 31 acres of protected green space, while Penn Hills has 48 acres. The new addition would bring the total acreage to 227 between the two communities.
That’s exciting to incoming land trust board member Ted Weller. He said it gave him the opportunity to do one of his favorite things: bird watching.
“Just in the 15 or 20 minutes we've been walking in the heat of the day, when normally it's the quietest, I've heard at least 15 different types of birds,” he said.
As nature continues to reclaim what was once hers at the former country club, Weller said he expects to hear more birds singing.
The land trust has scheduled a public meeting to present the details and status of the project on Aug. 7 at 7 p.m. in the Community Room at the Penn Hills Public Library.